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Authentic Learning and STEM Education with Andrew Bannish from BrainCo Tech

Episode 83: Common Challenges of PBL, and How to Avoid Them EdTech Classroom

In today's solo show, I'm sharing three common challenges of project-based learning, and ideas on how to avoid them. Episode Webpage: All About Gold Standard PBL: EdTech Classroom:  Website: Instagram: @edtechclass TikTok: @edtechclass Email:
  1. Episode 83: Common Challenges of PBL, and How to Avoid Them
  2. Episode 82: How to Use Mote in the Classroom
  3. Episode 81: A Case for Tinkering, Exploration, and Play for Every Grade Level
  4. Episode 80: Bringing Blogging into the Classroom with Student Blog Projects
  5. Episode 79: Prototyping and Testing in the Classroom

Maddie: Hi everyone, and welcome to Episode 4 of the EdTech Classroom Podcast. Today we have our very first interview with my friend and edtech expert Andrew Bannish.

Andrew is a passionate believer in the power of education to change the future of individuals all over the world. Andrew has been the representative of foreign educational institutions in China including FIRST Robotics and the World Robot Olympiad overseeing programming for more than 40,000 students annually. He created the Preferred Robotics which has awarded over one million US dollars in scholarships to students who display exemplary talent in engineering education. He’s also the co-creator of the FIRST Global robotics program and has also served as a panelist on the Beijing TV show “Beijing Guest.”

Now Andrew works for a really amazing company called BrainCo and has some great insight for us today. I loved recording this episode with him and I know you’re going to love listening.

But a couple of quick notes before we dive in, Andrew and I went to grad school together and I use a couple of abbreviations when interviewing him. HGSE stands for Harvard Graduate School of Education and TIE is the name of our Master’s program, which stands for Technology, Innovation, and Education.

Alright, so without further ado, let’s get started…

Maddie: I’m here now with Andrew Bannish and we’re going to be talking about authentic learning, his background, and his more recent projects with BrainCo.

Andrew and I actually went to grad school together, and let me just tell you – he is an edtech expert. He has experience working in STEM for a really long time, over ten years I think, and now he works for a really interesting company called BrainCo, which is a startup that uses cutting-edge technology to address real-world challenges. 

Andrew, thanks so much for joining me on the show today.

Andrew: Thank you, Maddie. I’m super excited to be here.

Maddie: It’s so great to hear your voice. Like I was saying for our listeners, Andrew and I actually both went to grad school together, and we’re chatting over Zoom call right now, and this is probably the second or so time that we’ve actually talked since we graduated in 2019. So, it’s just been really nice to catch up and to learn more about what we’ve been up to.

So could you tell our listeners where you are located right now?

Andrew: Sure, so I’m physically located in a very messy bedroom, as I’m sure everybody out there in the world is listening right now in some kind of impromptu office space. Yeah, so I’m here in Boston. I’m actually right next to Boston College and have been doing the work from home dance.

Maddie: It’s so funny that you say that about your messy bedroom because I am currently in the process of moving right now. I’m actually moving two days from now, so my apartment is filled with these gigantic moving boxes. So, I’m really glad that we are doing some chatting over Zoom audio instead of doing some video recording right now.

Andrew: Totally agree.

Maddie: So, you said you’re in Boston, and that is obviously a place that’s really near and dear to my heart. But, I’m going to be honest… I really do not miss the brutal Boston winters. I definitely do not miss that, but you’re from the northeast originally, right?

Andrew: Yes, actually so, I’ve been dealing with that winter you mentioned for many, many years. I grew up in West Springfield, so it’s the town right next to Springfield. It’s about an hour and a half drive west of Boston.

Maddie: Got it, got it. So you’re used to it, and for me, because I’ve been in California for such a long time, it was just a shocking experience to live in Boston for a year. But, like I said, it’s a place that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s a city that is filled with so much innovation and some really interesting people with backgrounds like yours.

I kind of just wanted to dive right in and start talking about your background because I know you have so much incredible insight to share. I think your career path is really fascinating, and this is something that just excites me about the edtech space in general. People come from a variety of different backgrounds.

I wanted to spend a little bit of time painting a picture for our listeners, so they can learn about who you are and your journey from the start of your career and into the edtech space.

Andrew: Absolutely, so as many people listening can probably attest to, none of these career paths are very linear. I think things always take weird twists and turns, and there’s been so many instances where I feel like I’ve had to pivot or something like that – for things that end up culminating this way – I think I’ve been really lucky.

So a real quick synopsis about what I ended up doing to get here… I started off actually as a major in International Relations in college – no background in engineering whatsoever as anyone who is a STEM teacher can probably attest to – a lot of us have come from all kinds of different backgrounds.

I knew I wanted to do something international and I knew that teaching was one way to kick that off. So, I signed up to be an English teacher in China, thinking I could go there, learn a little bit about the culture. I really wanted to learn a language as best I could, so I went to a city called Changchun, which is in northeastern China.

If you think about the geography of the country looking like a chicken – it kind of looks like a very weird chicken – it’s right where the eye would be. And, you mentioned cold, so that city has a climate that is more akin to Siberia or Canada.

I was an English teacher to start off. I was given literally zero support. The first day I was given a schedule of what classes I needed to teach and no curriculum guides or books or anything, so I had to figure everything out by myself with zero support.

Somehow I still got really intrigued in education, and I think anyone who has done any kind of international education work, has seen what kind of value that can bring to all kinds of people. So I ended up doing some consulting work with education and working on a bunch of educational projects.

Then through a mutal contact, I learned that there is this amazing program out there called FIRST Robotics, and it’s one of the largest STEM programs in the world. Through a whole series of different events, I ended up managing the better part of that program for about five years in China. There were about 40,000 students engaged in all different robotics competitions.

Then, I was selected by a committee there to be part of their founding team of this effort called FIRST Global, which was finding a way that we could create a robotics program that we could scale into every country on Earth.

We’ve been able to get it into 163 countries so far. It’s been an unbelievable experience. A few years ago, we had our inaugural event in DC and it got tons of news press.

Some listeners out there might be familiar with the Afghan robot girls – that actually came out of our program. Some of my amazing colleagues were able to work with the State Department on visas and stuff like that. It was really incredible to see that unfold in front of your eyes.

From there, I really knew that there was a really unbelievable amount of potential in anything related to technology in education. So, I signed up to do that Master’s program that Maddie and I ended up doing, which has brought me here today. There have been a lot of twists and turns, and I’ve got a lot of stories of being heartbroken, being jobless, questioning all my career decisions, but ultimately it led to some amazing things.

Maddie: It’s really interejsting to hear you talk about your story, and when we were chatting the other day, I didn’t realize that you were involved with FIRST Robotics until we were chatting. I actually did FIRST Robotics in middle school. I did LEGO League specifically – I think that’s a part of FIRST Robotics.

I didn’t really realize it at the time, but I think that LEGO League was hugely instrumental in my personal decision to go into STEM, especially as a woman, so it’s really neat to hear we have that connection in comon.

I think that maybe not everybody who is listening will know what FIRST Robotics is, we have some listeners who are STEM teachers, but we also have regular classroom K-12 teachers, so could you elaborate a little bit more about what FIRST Robotics actually is?

Andrew: Sure, so like I mentioned, I spent a lot of time working in the FIRST network, I’ve taken a big step back from a lot of the things going on there, but FIRST is an amazing program which brings together a bunch of different types of robotics programs and events and opportunities for students ages 5 – 18.

So students can go from engineering challenges with LEGO bricks all the way up into some high school programs where students work with engineers on creating some industrial level robots in these really fun competitions.

They’ve had a lot of really great progress lately too. They’ve partnered with Star Wars for new themes for these robotics challenges, and it’s just full of really amazing people. If anyone out there is interested, I’d really recommend they check it out.

Maddie: Yeah, that’s awesome. If anybody is interested, how do you recommend they start a program like this at their school?

Andrew: Sure, so I think there’s a lot of different things that are available right now. Just go on the website and you can find everything there. There’s a place right in the website where you can find out who in your community is already doing it. So it’s pretty easy to get in touch with the people in your community who are already doing it.

Maddie: Oh, awesome. That’s great. It’s really great to hear they have a locator where you can find people who are doing it already. What’s nice about the STEM community is that I feel like there are a lot of tools like that that exist to connect people and bring them together.

Sometimes I think about the edtech space as being so niche, but then I hear anecdotes like this that really remind me that it is such an exciting and tight-knit community. That’s cool that they have that as an option on their website.

Andrew: Yep, it’s very easy to get in touch.

Maddie: So I know that you said that your experience with FIRST Robotics kind of made you aware of all the affordances of technology in education, and you said that that sort of led you to go to HGSE, but is there a specific moment, or something instrumental that made you want to get your Master’s in TIE specifically?

Because, like I was saying, I feel like it is kind of a niche thing to study. I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve told people that I got my Master’s in edtech, they’re like “oh wow that’s really specific.” I was just curious if there was a specific instance that made you want to apply to that program versus other edtech programs that exist.

Andrew: Sure, so I think there were a few things out there. One of the big things that sprung to mind, as I mentioned and might be the case for many people listening out there now… Entering that world of, whether it’s STEM education or the implementation of some kind of technology in education, I originally thought, just like you said, that it’s a super niche thing. There can’t be that many people doing it.

I felt very alone with what I was doing, but it doesn’t take very long to really see this huge community that has been built out of some passionate people who are taking tons of time out of their day to create the right tools or to get students involved in some kind of really exciting manner. They choose a career path or just use technology in some way that can better the people around them and anybody else in their community.

And, specifically, really being involved with that FIRST Global project. When people think of a youth robotics competition, I feel like, people think it’s like a battle bots thing.

Maddie: That’s really funny.

Andrew: Yeah, the amount of times I’ve had to explain to people that it’s kids aren’t building robots that are going to destroy somebody else’s and make them cry was countless.

But, beyond all that stuff, you really get to see what happens when the right people end up in the right place, and with some of those events I mentioned earlier, it’s almost like doing the Hajj, like going to Mecca, for a technology thing, where all the sudden you see tens of thousands of people who have implemented technology in a really amazing way, and are just super passionate about it.

For example, that one event I mentioned in DC, the President of the World Bank was there. Members of the White House came. I think there were 150 different news outlets, so when the right people and the right stories came through, it was like this museum of technology in education. It’s just amazing what comes there.

And, the last point I’ll add onto that is… what we always said, even if engineering or technology isn’t your primary passion, I think it’s an amazing – almost like a campfire – to kind of bring everybody together, and then, if students are interested in taking on some of the more social aspects of whatever problem they are exploring throughout this program or this offering, then they can really stand out in that way.

There are so many different implementations and ways you can make a difference within this space, and that is just talking about the STEM / robotic aspect. When we think about all these different Internet-enabled applications and virtual learning, the community out there is really huge and passionate.

Finding the right people to talk to can really change your mindset.

Maddie: Totally, totally. I love everything that you’re saying right now. Something that really struck me – and this is advice that I give to teachers a lot – is… so many teachers come to me and say, “I don’t have a tech background,” or “I don’t have an engineering background, so how am I supposed to all the sudden start incorporating a makerspace in my classroom or engineering principles in my classroom?”

And, what I always tell people is… you do not have to have an engineering background to go into edtech. I think people think of it as being this skillset that needs to be highly technical, and you know obviously there are people in edtech who do have a very technical skillset.

But I think what really is the factor that is uniting people is the fact that everyone has this same passion for using technology as a force for good. I think that is what really sets edtech apart from the tech community in general is this element of tech being a tool or a force for good in a way that can help people and inspire people.

I liked hearing that it sounds like you have a similar perspective on the community that I do.

Andrew: That’s right, and I think the key word there is that you’re never in it alone. I’ve also been there, learning how to use Scratch on EdX years ago. When the principal comes up to them or somebody says, “you need to teach this class now,” I think we all know that moment of fright that flows through our veins in that specific moment.

Just never forget that there really are literally hundreds of thousands – if not, millions – of people around the world that would be thrilled to not just help you, but to welcome you into their community.

So, there’s always somebody out there who would love to talk to you.

Maddie: For sure… when you mentioned Scratch, three years ago, I had no idea that Scratch existed. I had no idea what Scratch was. And now, I’m teaching it to my students almost everyday. It’s just a testament to the fact that you can learn how to use these new tools with support from others.

And speaking of Scratch, did you take Karen Brennan’s class in TIE?

Andrew: I actually didn’t. I had to make the difficult choice between that and David Dockterman’s class.

Maddie: Got it, yeah. I took Karen Brennan’s class. The reason why I was mentioning it is because in my first podcast episode, I put together a summer book list for teachers, and one of the books on there was Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitch Resnick – the Scratch guy – so I was just curious if you’ve read that book or knew anything about it.

Andrew: I actually got to translate for Mitch Resnick in China a few times.

Maddie: No way! That is so cool. I just look up to this guy so much.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s opened up the door to a lot of weird conversations we could have, but that first program, it’s unbelievable, or I guess I should say STEM in general, the kind of people that get involved. Just being their representative over there, I had to translate for Mitch Resnick. I translated for, the Black Eyed Peas guy, he’s a big proponent of getting kids involved in STEM. Dean Kamen multiple times – the really famous engineer who started FIRST – the LEGO executive team came over many times.

And, that’s just one specific example with me, but just getting involved with this STEM community in general, you’d be really amazed at the kind of people and opportunities that that can phase up at any level.

Maddie: So were there any other – since we just kind of started about classes or programs at HGSE – have there been any classes or programs that you feel like have really shaped your career since going to grad school? For example, has there been any information or knowledge that you’ve gained while you were in TIE that you feel like you apply to your work everyday?

Andrew: Really I think that the strength of the program beyond the classes was really just the people there. Just like you mentioned at the beginning of this, just being able to interact with people like you, and everybody else there. The process that I enjoyed the most was being able to meet people.

You know, it was like any other school. People were going to class, students and teachers, and you’d meet people in such a casual way, and then my favorite part was getting comfortable enough with them – developing sort of a relationship with them or the right moment strikes – and just being able to learn what makes them really special.

So finding out that really cool thing or that really amazing passion or whatever it was. So people starting TV shows, or starting these really cool nonprofits or businesses, or working with some kind of amazing person. It was just a nonstop really cool person buffet.

In general, it’s a very short program, and the things that really stayed with me the most was the opening of new dimensions of education I never thought about before. I never operated with a very strong pedagogy, believe it or not before I came to HGSE, a lot of it was figure it out on the fly, and I didn’t really have a lot of ways to conceptualize things.

I think that program really set that in motion for me, really thinking deeper about what these experiences we should be offering students are and how we can achieve that through all kinds of different means, whether that be through technology or some kind of new stakeholder. So, those frameworks have been very valuable.

Maddie: Yeah, that’s something that’s actually a goal of my podcast in general, and one of the main reasons why I wanted to start this. I feel like there is so much really interesting educational theory and pedagogy, but it’s not super digestible for everyone.

Kind of what I wanted to achieve with creating this podcast in general is being able to break down theory in ways that are super accessible for teachers so they feel like they can leave each podcast episode with a concrete takeaway of something they can do in their classroom.

Andrew: I completely agree. I’m still working on it too. I feel like I’m certainly a lifelong learner in that respect.

Maddie: Yep me too. I identify first as a lifelong learner I think. Were you involved in the iLab while you were at HGSE?

Andrew: They have this program at the school of education called HIVE, so Harvard Innovation and Ventures in Education. It was probably one of the programs that I was the most involved in, so it’s really about inspiring entrepreneurship in education in different forms.

So every year HIVE holds a pitch competition, where students from the Harvard community can register their startup ideas or whatever their initiative was, pitch it at the event, and be eligible for a total of all the finalists getting $10,000. I co-organized that with another wonderful alumni.

I didn’t specifically have my own venture in there, but I worked with many other students who were doing theirs.

Maddie: But now you work for a company that came out of the iLab, is that correct?

Andrew: That’s correct, yep.

Maddie: So could you give our listeners a brief summary of what BrainCo does? I know in the beginning of the episode I talked about how it’s a startup that uses cutting-edge technology to address real-world problems, but obviously you work there, so you can do it justice better than I can.

So, I’d love to hear from your perspective what BrainCo does.

Andrew: Sure, absolutely. So BrainCo was incubated at the Harvard iLab, approximately three or four years ago, and since then, they were actually founded by a person coming out of the brain science division of the Harvard School of Engineering. And, at the time, they had a lot of really cool ideas about making different kinds of brain applications available into all kinds of different products or services.

The founder was this wonderful guy called Bicheng Han and he found that, I think education has some really interesting applications for better understandings of the brain. So with that in mind, the company created a series of different technologies around brain-machine interfaces. So just a fancy way of saying your brain controls some kind of a machine in some way, or there’s some kind of way that we can understand what’s happening in the brain through some kind of sensor or output.

That’s been implemented in many different ways, so we have a whole medical division which creates prosthetics, which can be controlled through different technology applications, so you put these special sensors on your arm for muscle signals and that can move a prosthetic in a way that feels very natural. A couple of other medical things too.

We have another one that does autism therapy, undergoing a lot of different trials right now using this kind of brain sensing technology that gets paired with these exercises that students can do to better improve their focus during certain activities.

On the education side, we’ve been mostly doing things on helping students improve their wellness or focus through these different guided activities with edtech. The one that I specifically work on is something that will be a lot closer to what STEM teachers are working with.

So we actually have this amazing wealth of really passionate engineers, all these different incredible stories of people seeing these socially important problems, and then developing some kind of technology to address that.

There really was a great opportunity to implement some of these authentic learning principles that we’ve alluded to and turn that into some kind of a classroom experience that could be accessible to different kinds of learning environments.

The last thing that we really work on is what we call a STEM Kit. So it’s a kit that breaks down some of the really more educational aspects of that prosthetic that I talked about, and created all kinds of learning frameworks around it, so that students can learn not just more specific STEM things, like controlling things with a microcontroller and learning to program with this, but they can also do some really cool, real-world problems around artificial intelligence applications, brain machine interface learning.

Students can use this as a medium to investigate more cutting-edge areas of STEM, and we work really hard to make sure that teachers have that authentic learning inspired, project-based learning inspired activities to have that actual experience within their classroom.

That’s a small slice of what we do. But yeah, we’re based right here in Boston, strategically located right between MIT and Harvard. I can walk to each one of those places from the office. Well, of course, haven’t been there too much over the past few months. Yeah that’s what we do.

Maddie: That’s awesome. What I think is just so interesting is BrainCo’s philosophy and this idea of authentic learning. That’s something that professionally I am very passionate about.

My last podcast episode was about Genius Hour, which I think is an example – obviously to a smaller scale than what BrainCo does – but that’s an example of authentic learning. My podcast episode before that was about project-based learning. So, it’s neat to hear an example of a company that believes in those same principles as well.

I do want to talk more about your products, but I do have a clarifying question – so you’re talking about how you’re able to connect students to all these different products. Who is your actual customer base? For example, are you selling primarily to schools, or to consumers directly? How does that structure work?

Andrew: Yeah, so we’ve seen a lot of those products out there, that we’ve mentioned, but to speak specifically about that STEM offering that we put together, in any educational environment that can support that has utilized this in some way.

We’ve worked with schools directly on equipping makerspaces. We’ve worked with schools if they have a STEM class, or some kind of elective in that space. We’ve also worked with career technical education classes, so doing something with robotics or engineering design, that kind of stuff, we’ve been able to implement in those environments.

If people are looking for something more enrichment-focused, we have worked with summer programs and after school operators in different ways. We’ve done a number of different workshops at the Yale School of Engineering.

So I’d probably say 5th grade through high school, if they are doing anything along those lines that I just mentioned, we’ve been able to implement it in some way or another.

Maddie: That’s awesome. That’s really neat. So this STEM kit that you keep talking about. I know you’ve briefly explained it, but could you dive into a more in-depth exploration? Because it sounds really cool and I feel like our listeners are going to want to learn more about it.

Andrew: Sure, so what we really wanted to do was, like I mentioned, take some new pedagogies and take them into an experience that educators could do in their classroom or whatever environment they have.

So we have this amazing story – I think it hit all the different bases of what kind of characteristics that educators want to build in a student – so it really comes from that story about the prosthetic that I mentioned.

And this prosthetic has won a ton of awards. It was one of TIME magazine’s best inventions of 2019. It just won a Red Dot award. So it all came because a group of engineers were able to all recognize that they have the skills to tackle some kind of a real-world problem out there.

They went through all the different iterations and setbacks. They had to learn all kinds of new skills, and throughout that whole story, we’ve been able to break down these different elements of how engineers solve an actual problem.

The STEM Kit was really a way we could take those experiences and turn them into different kinds of project-based learning activities, which fall into a bigger authentic learning pedagogy. The one thing we noticed a lot from speaking with educators over the past year was how they really need to have something that fits their classroom needs, as opposed to an engineer in a laboratory obviously.

Classes are 45 minutes or longer, or if you have a different sort of scheduling obviously. Students are coming in and out all the time. You need some way to store stuff. How does the next group of students use it?

Not to mention it’s got to be something the school itself can actually implement and have the resources to work with. It can’t be too difficult to get off the ground, but still be functional enough so that you can expand it into higher levels for people who want to customize it more or who are more comfortable with technology.

So all of those different kinds of things had to come together in some way that we could offer it. So it was a lot of really fun learning on our side to design something that could fit all this different criteria.

And the last thing that really resonates with some of the experiences that might be in the classrooms out there is that I feel that there’s a lot of different options that teachers and educators can take on to experience these really cool aspects of STEM.

But the last thing we wanted to put out there into educators hands was some kind of robot that moves around and can follow a line, and that ultimately students can see something they did and could empathize and see a way they could implement that technology themselves in the future.

Whether they are taking their first steps to develop some sort of competency, the more important part is that they really can understand that this is something that they can take on in the future. And, build that confidence and interest takes them to all kinds of different directions when they finish their schooling.

Maddie: I’m interested in what you said about instilling confidence in students around STEM and engineering in general because, you mentioned this in our chat the other day, about how that’s a culture that’s really different in the United States than it is in China, so I was wondering if you could possibly touch on that distinction.

Andrew: I think there are lots of different things to investigate there. But to speak briefly on those cultural differences, what we found was that if we walk around the US and talk to STEM educators who are working to solve issues in this space, a lot of them are centered around: how can we inspire students and how can we get students engaged in engineering?

I mean everyone’s seen this in the news; there’s not enough engineers out there, there’s this huge job gap, there’s X million amount of jobs that can’t be filled by Americans because there aren’t enough people interested in STEM. So a lot of the impetus behind doing these programs is somehow involved in that.

It’s really funny because I had that same kind of conversation in China, and I think you could say this about a lot of other countries around the world, but we saw immediately that using that kind of methodology – and of course, when I first started that job in China, we had all of our marketing materials and our pitches were based somehow along those lines – it’s so funny that the first reaction you’d get by talking to an educator or a provincial education bureau person, they would say, “yeah I know. We all know this. Our students do engineering because they know it’s a good path.”

And you never really get the answer.

A lot of the way that these different programs have been implemented in China were based around how can we make a quality engineer, like a socially cognizant, somebody who is a free-thinker, can be creative, take on more than just fulfilling some requirement given to them by a higher up, how can they become much more of a well-rounded person in that space?

I think that same need exists here. I just think we have other pressing issues in STEM. That’s just the biggest one we had to work around, and as I was saying before, the true measure of success for any kind of STEM product – or program or whatever it is – is that you can get students to the point where they can really see all the different paths that open up in front of them.

They don’t necessarily have to become a master Python programmer or some kind of robotics wizard in middle school or high school. They just have to understand that they really can do it and that they just have to have that right mindset where they can get involved in that world wherever it best suits them and their future career.

Maddie: I’m really interested in these examples that you’ve been giving of hands-on learning because I feel like when I talk about STEM education to either teachers at my school or teachers just in general, a lot of people have this perception of STEM education as being something that is very screen-focused.

So you know, obviously there are a lot of screen elements to technology, of course. When you think about coding, or other things like that, it’s interesting to hear examples of really high-tech tools that students are using in their classrooms that have screen elements, but aren’t necessarily focused strictly on the act of consuming something on a screen. And instead, are really focused on these ideas of hands-on learning.

I think that maybe, culturally in the United States, screen-time is just a very controversial topic. Some people are just like, “absolutely no screens in my house for my children.” Other people are like, “it’s about the content on the screen. Not the screen itself.”

And so, I’m just wondering if that kind of stems from a misconception about what STEM education actually is.

Andrew: Sure, yeah, I agree with that.

Maddie: So now that we are currently operating in this period of remote learning. The world has changed a lot, and I’ve found that as a STEM teacher myself, it’s been a lot more difficult to – I feel like I’ve had to be more creative about the ways that I can help my students engage in hands-on learning while they’re at home.

How have you and your team had to change your curriculum to meet these new remote learning needs? Have you still been able to connect your students to real-world learning experiences in this remote learning environment? Or, has that been a challenge for you guys to figure out?

Andrew: Sure, I think that anybody out there who is working with some kind of hands-on project can certainly testify that any kind of hands-on learning when everyone is at a different location, connected by some kind of a Zoom meeting, is a huge challenge.

For us, the pedagogy behind our offering was always something – or at least we’d give educators many different options where ideally, it’s something that you could put in front of a student or a group of students typically, and that they could discover everything on their own.

So it wasn’t something that necessarily you would have to do a bunch of lectures ahead of time. I think the mark of a really successful program or product is something that can be – students have that agency to see what probelms they want to choose, how they would solve them, and the learning takes place while they are completing all those different challenges.

From a distance point of view, having that self-guided learning was always something that we had. The biggest issue was how do you get a group of students to work together in a remote environment. How do people have materials to do that? So, what we’ve really had to do is…

Number 1: Make sure students had the right kind of materials to complete that self-guided learning, whether it’s different kinds of instruction materials or pokes in the right direction of being questions that could see their kit in a different way. Or, do some kind of action to create an assessable achievement.

So we’ve had to a change a lot of what’s happening here. What we’ve been seeing from a lot of schools is that things are up in the air. Some people are really gung-ho about “we absolutely have to all be in the classroom together.” Other schools are trying to figure out some last minute blended learning environment.

We want to make sure there are options for people in different environments, but it really is a difficult time out there, and people are going to have to figure out a way that fits their learners the best with whatever circumstances they end up in.

Maddie: It’s a difficult time and it’s an interesting time to be in the edtech space, and education in general, but specifically the edtech space. It’s interesting for me to hear you talk about doing self-guided projects with students remotely.

I just feel like right now is the perfect time for teachers to be exploring self-guided projects with their students. But for some reason, I feel like teachers are hesitant to do self-guided projects, and I don’t know if that’s because they’re worried about what students are going to do with “unstructured” time while they’re learning remotely.

How are they going to pace themselves and work through different challenges on their own? So, do you have any advice for teachers who are really excited about the idea of self-guided projects, but don’t really know how to set up a framework for their students to do this?

Andrew: This is a time where old notions are being reinvestigated. There’s actually another great podcast out there called Silver Linings for Learning by Dr. Yong Zhao. He’s a wonderful researcher into this new educational world that we’re entering into.

There’s just so much unbelievable opportunity that we have when we have to rethink what education is. Typically it’s always been where students are in a room together with their peers, and there’s a certain amount of material they have to get through everyday, and they’re assessed.

And it’s this old, industrial-age thinking model around being able to have a diploma that says you’ve been through a certain amount of time doing a certain amount of thing with a certain group of people.

I think that when people really investigate the kinds of competencies that students need to develop to succeed in the future, it’s gonna really have to be a lot of self-guided instruction.

The last book that I’ll drop is wonderful – and I’d be happy to talk about this more later – is the 60 Year Curriculum by one of our old professors Chris Dede, where he talks in much more detail about these kinds of habits and skills that students are going to need master in order to succeed in a future workforce.

The days of having a very clear career path and a boss that can guide you through a certain career are almost over. People are going to switch jobs all the time. And career roadmaps – students are going to have to get ready for jobs that don’t even exist yet.

We’re going to have to leave those notions of structured class time behind. But, to speak a little bit more tactfully about the question that you just mentioned, I think we should all be encouraged by students who are going to see some kind of a self-guided project or challenge and go in whatever direction that fascinates them the most.

I think it takes a little bit more planning. The ways that I’ve been able to have a good experience for everyone involved is to make sure that in whatever direction the student wants to go in – whether they are very engaged and they want to do more, or if they’re struggling a bit and they have the peers or educators next to them to be boosted into a bit where they feel a bit more comfortable – is to make sure these resources are very carefully placed for educators to access.

So we have a series of different challenges that have a very open-ended ways of solving them that we have structured so that educators can give students multiple challenges together and allow students to take which one they’re most passionate about and create their own path from there.

Otherwise, we make sure that there’s some kind of steps that would be complete that you would be able to assess where a student is struggling or needs a little more inspiration. So, as long as you can plot out some of those different needs that happen, throughout different experiences, then it’s a bit easier to have the right resources in place so students can access things on their own – instead of really having someone telling them what the next step is all the time.

That’s one way that we’ve done it. Just really thinking through the challenges that students might be encountering throughout the course of a certain project. Just having these resources in place so that students can really access them and digest them on their own.

Maddie: Yeah, that’s pretty much the same advice that I’ve been giving teachers in terms of anticipating challenges and then having one-on-one check-ins or small group check-ins or structure in place. And a sort of general feedback framework.

I feel like you just said so many exciting things that I want to talk about in that answer that you just gave. I know you talked about the Silver Linings Podcast and then Chris Dede’s book is really great for anyone who is trying to learn more about what 21st century learning could look like. It has some really great takeaways.

And Chris Dede’s work in general is really great to check out if you are interested in any of the themes we’ve talked about today. Chris Dede is just a great resource for you to look into his work and research.

So I want to be conscious of your time because we’re coming up on 1 o’clock here…

Andrew: Yeah, I mean I can certainly say a few things to wrap things up. Anybody who is interested in any kind of topics that we discussed today, I’d be more than happy to facilitate some kind of communication with you. I’m always really happy to get involved with the community out there.

One thing that I’d like to touch on too, and I’m assuming your listeners out there are doing all different kinds of things, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of educators over the past few months about different things we’ve been doing here. But, really learning what people are doing.

We’ve come up with our series of attempted solutions at working in this new educational environment that we’ve all been thrust into, but I’m always curious to see what other people are doing. So if there’s anybody out there doing STEM or any kind of disruptive learning in this space, I’d love to hear what you’ve been doing and how you’ve been able to manage it.

But the last thing I’d like to say here too is that the one thing that really excites me is having an opportunity to completely rethink the way that we do learning in the United States. I think that there are some really interesting models of how other countries have solved that and things that are taken for granted in other places.

So for example, like a dual teacher model is really popular in other countries, and there’s all this amazing technology that supports it, particularly in countries in Asia. I’ve never seen that in the United States in many environments.

I think we have the opportunity to investigate some additional things that we can do here and put that within those frameworks that better support students to become much more proactive, active participants in not just education, but in their careers at a much earlier date.

One last thing I can bring up, and I always love sharing this example, if people are interested in really seeing what a brand new climate in education would look like with some of these new principles put in action, you can look up the Stanford Open Loop University concept.

That really walks you through what tertiary learning could look like if we really thought through what education was. I think there are lessons that could be drawn there that can be implemented in all different kinds of classrooms and educational spaces as well.

Maddie: Yes, Stanford Open Loop University is so interesting so I’d like to echo that as well. Anybody who thinks these concepts sound interesting please do a Google search and learn more about it. I think that it’s just a really, really interesting concept.

We used the phrase “silver linings,” and I think that something that is a really beautiful silver lining about the world right now is that people outside of education and education technology are starting to think about these things. For a really long time, we’ve been saying, “oh we need to reimagine education. There’s this industrial model of education that we need to get away from.”

But now, people are actually putting energy into doing creative problem-solving to find solutions. A great place – if you are somebody who is really motivated and you want to be able to figure out how to make some of these solutions that we are talking about – check out Open Loop University. It’s just a really interesting thing to check out.

Andrew: Absolutely.

Maddie: So you mentioned that listeners can reach out to you. How can they find you if they want to learn mroe about your work or share some of their ideas with you?

Andrew: If you’re interested in any of those technologies that we’ve mentioned, you can visit, and if you Google us, I’m sure it’ll come up too. You can see what we’ve put together with that STEM offering and some of our other technologies.

For me personally, I think the easiest way is if you look me up on LinkedIn. That’s typically where I tend to be the most active. Feel free to connect with me there and I’d be very excited to hear about what you happen to be doing in your classroom.

Maddie: Okay, well thank you so much Andrew for chatting with me today! I feel like I am going to be spending the rest of my day thinking about all of these interesting and exciting concepts. Thank you so much! I really, really appreciate it.

Maddie: You guys… I just loved recording this episode with Andrew. Thank you so much for listening to the EdTech Classroom podcast. If you liked this episode, please subscribe and leave a review. It would mean so much to me. I’m not kidding when I say this, but I literally freak out every single time I get a five-star rating, a comment, or an email. I love, love, LOVE hearing from you.

Let’s be friends. Let’s learn and grow together as 21st century educators.


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